Glossary: Long Barrows

Photo of Waylands Smithy Long Barrow

The monumental sarsen and drystone façade of Wayland's Smithy, a chambered long barrow near Uffington, Oxfordshire. The tallest sarsens stand over 3 metres high. The mound behind them is around 55 metres long and is up to 14 metres wide, with a ditch along each side. This megalithic (i.e. large stones were used) chambered tomb was constructed, according to radiocarbond dating, between 3490 and 3390 BC. Excavations showed that it had been built on top of an earlier, smaller long barrow built no earlier than around 3600 BC.

The long barrow is probably the earliest form of monument to be constructed during the Neolithic in the British Isles. As they are often associated with human remains, they can be regarded as our oldest burial monuments, although this is something of an over-simplification of the purpose and uses.

Long barrows in the British Isles are extremely variable in form and size. What they all possess in common is an elongated mound, usually constructed with material dug from flanking ditches - one on each side. The smallest known examples are less than 20 metres in length. Most are between 25 metres and 60 metres long, while a handful reach 100 metres or more.

Usually one end is broader and taller than the other, and it is this end that was usually the focus for ceremony and burial. In areas of the country where suitable stone was available, the barrows may feature chambers in which human remains, and other material, were placed. Elsewhere such chambers may have been made of timber, or there may have been no chambers at all. In these cases, funerary activity may have occurred on the ground surface, perhaps within earth or timber structures, the traces then concealed by the construction of the mound.

Funerary rituals in the early Neolithic were very different to modern ideas of appropriate forms of burial for the dead. There was far less concern with the interment of complete bodies. Often what is found are partial remains of one or more individuals, suggesting that initial burial or exposure had taken place elsewhere before some or all of the bones were placed - perhaps only temporarily - within or beneath a long barrow.

Long Barrow near Uffington

This slight lump in the ground, probably unnoticeable to most of the people who walk past it, is also a Neolithic long barrow. Lying close to the famous White Horse at Uffington, Oxfordshire, it now measures around 25 metres long and is up to 12 metres wide. Excavations have shown considerable disturbance by later activity, including burials of much later periods.

It is clear from the numbers of individuals represented in excavated long barrows that only a tiny proportion of the population were represented – the rest were presumably disposed of in other ways. The fact that some contained no human bones at all also emphasises the fact that these enormous and elaborate constructions – huge markers placed often in highly visible locations – were about more than just human burial. Indeed, some contained the remains of more animals than people.

Available dating evidence suggests that in the British Isles, the first long barrows were built during the period 3800-3500 BC, and most if not all had fallen out of use by around 3000 BC. However, they remained important features in the landscape, and were often a focus for later monuments, including Bronze Age round barrows.